Military Sexual Assault: Toxic Masculinity Gone Viral?

Men who perpetrate military sexual assaults tend to be indiscriminate;—they will destroy the lives of men as easily as women.

Indeed, because men enter the military in much higher numbers than women, the majority of military sexual assault victims are men.  In a 2013 report on sexual assault, the Pentagon estimated that 26,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012; 53% of those attacks were directed at men, mostly by other men.

It has been estimated that 38 military men are sexually assaulted every day; “The culprits almost always go free, the survivors rarely speak, and no one in the military or Congress has done enough to stop it.”  A few survivors did talk to GQ Magazine; you can read their stories here.

In order to explain sexual assaults, one factor that clinicians and social scientists have advanced is “toxic masculinity,” which may be exacerbated by toxic environments.  Toxic is defined as “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and wanton violence.”

Such traits appear to flourish in certain toxic environments more than in others.  Prisons comprise a toxic environment, and the military is another.

Do the ideas of toxic masculinity and toxic environments sound valid to you?

Whatever your views on the extent to which traits and environments become toxic, I hope you will steer children away from bullying and recognize that neither military service members nor imprisoned men and women deserve to be sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or otherwise abused—in violation of international law.

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13 Responses to Military Sexual Assault: Toxic Masculinity Gone Viral?

  1. Gold Dust Twin says:

    Rape is assault, impure and not simple, and certainly not amusing. If your son or daughter or brother or sister or any other relative were killed in an accident, would you laugh at a joke on the subject of accidental death? The last paragraph of this essay calls on parents and caregivers to be aware of the possibility of bullying and sexual harassment in their children’s lives and to raise them in an environment where these subjects can be freely discussed, along with appropriate advice and warnings. Seems like good advice to me.

  2. Reina Chehayeb says:

    What struck me most about military sexual assault was that the perpetrators almost always go free, that the victims rarely speak up, and that no one really does enough to stop it. The statistics were unexpected—38 military men being sexually assaulted every day is a astonishingly high number, and it may not take into account cases that are not reported, much like statistics regarding child sexual abuse, where it is difficult to account for unreported cases. What makes this worse is that there is already the rampant issue of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affecting so many war veterans worldwide. PTSD is coincidentally a very common consequence of sexual abuse as well. A war veteran who has experienced sexual abuse must be at even higher risk for developing PTSD, which can be debilitating.

    It’s disturbing to think these violent behaviors are so common, and it is important to look at the different causes that drive such behaviors. In Family Violence in the United States, several studies are listed that examined the percentage of young adults and teenagers who experienced relational violence with their siblings. In these studies, of the ones that included those aged 18 years and above, an incredible majority of those surveyed claimed that they exhibited some form of relational violence with a sibling. This may have caused them to learn that violence and aggression is a suitable method for resolving conflict, according to the social learning theory. Thus, they may be more likely to use violence with their military peers.

    Toxic masculinity may also be promoting the use of violence among military men. As the blog post mentions, one characteristic of toxic masculinity is the devaluation of women. Coincidentally, in violence that is directed towards parents, the parent’s gender plays a large role in determining their risk for being subjected to violence. Mothers are far more likely than fathers to become victims of relational violence against parents. Additionally, males are more likely to resort to relational violence against parents than females are. If this also applies to relational violence directed towards military peers, then we can assume that the gender of the perpetrator also plays a large role in maintaining such a high rate of sexual violence, since the majority of those enlisted in the military are males.

  3. Jyothi Nair says:

    I believe that the ideas of toxic masculinity and toxic environment are not just valid, but major contributors to the prevalence of military sexual assault. The military’s image is one of dominance, power, and aggression all perfectly balanced with discipline and this has somehow become our culture’s way of defining what a “real man” is; it is the ideal form of masculinity. When one of those aspects overpowers the others however (i.e. when discipline is lacking and need for power is too strong) that’s when the idea of toxic masculinity comes into play. Suddenly the man needs to prove himself as a man and will go to any lengths to do so, which seems to be the case in the stories of the victims and perpetrators. This ties in with the statistics of male versus female perpetrators with males greatly outnumbering the females.

    A toxic environment such as prison or the military also contributes to sexual assault. In general, violence against men, or even aggression, is more tolerated than towards women for several reasons. One reason is that women’s violence is less likely to cause harm as compared to men’s violence. Another reason is that there is the assumption that men are better able to escape an abusive situation if they want to. In the context of military sexual assault, I find this assumption to be especially horrible. After reading the accounts of victims in the military it is clear that there really is no escape for them. In the stringent hierarchy of command, a lower rank cannot and will not disobey their superiors even if it means risking their safety. And on the rare occasion when they did speak out about the crime, they were either mocked, not taken seriously, or discharged on a misdiagnosis (usually a psychological disorder).

    The last paragraph of this blog post was an interesting take on the article and really opened up my mind to what might be the root of the problem of military sexual assault; I believe the best way to prevent this is to focus on educating our children from the day they’re born about equality within genders and sexual orientation. When children bully each other they’re asserting their dominance over someone they see to be inferior to them. This seems to be the start of the idea of masculinity and its stereotypes. Homophobia also plays a role; men are afraid to look weak in fear of being called “gay” and being less manly. When children are raised in a culture that does not tackle these issues they grow up thinking it’s accepted. And so toxic masculinity is born and manifests to dangerous levels in toxic environments. The key is to teach children from a young age that everyone is equal and bullying is not acceptable.

  4. Alex Siladi says:

    This post clearly shows that when members of the military come forward to report sexual abuse, they are often disbelieved. It is certainly more convenient for the military to avoid the issue, and the chain of command makes it very easy for them to do so. After all, consider the relocations and terminations the military would have to make if they acknowledged the reality and the scale of the problem. I think we see a similar problem in all forms of abuse.

    Levels of complacency and disbelief in the military concerning sexual assault definitely mirror those levels in other forms of abuse. How many people would guess that homicide accounts for one in five injury-related deaths in infants under one year of age, or that since 2001 more than 20,000 children in the United States are estimated to have been killed in their homes at the hands of family members (four times the amount of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan). The prevalence of these abuses is almost invisible. We hardly hear about them in the media and are left to assume that what few cases we do hear about are isolated and of little concern.

    In addition to just the prevalence rates that we choose to ignore as a society, there is evidence of direct disbelief and acceptance of abuse Hines and Malley-Morrison describe a case in which, in determining the case of a sexually assaulted five-year-old, a judge determined ‘I am satisfied we have an unusually sexually promiscuous young lady and the defendant did not know enough to refuse’. While I do not know the details of this case, I can’t imagine a scenario in which a child could be implicated in initiating sexual abuse and a parent was not responsible to stop it. Furthermore, in the case of child neglect Hines and Malley-Morrison quote a 2007 article saying that concerning child neglect society makes a mole hill out of a mountain. Finally, 79% of men surveyed in 1987 identified at least one circumstance in which they would hit a wife.

    We fail to acknowledge the scale of the abuse problem in both our military and our civilian lives. Not only that, we are also complacent and accepting of many forms of abuse that are prevalent in our society. Are we in danger of letting our complacency foster a toxic environment for all forms of abuse.

  5. Christine C. says:

    The facts and figures on reported cases of military sexual assault towards men and women are chilling. It is even more disturbing when one calculates the likelihood that there are many cases that go unreported because of fear and shame. This trend is seen not only in cases of military sexual assault but throughout the US in cases of child physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect. Rape is an act of violence and control that is exerted against a victim’s will and devoid of any feelings of compassion or love. Rapists who claim to love their child victims or unwilling partners are not being truthful in their intentions. Dominance, control, and disregard for another person are the true motivators for their behaviors. For years, society did not acknowledge marital rape. Even decades after establishing a law against marital rape, people today view spousal rape as a lesser crime than rape by a stranger. This view relates to the dominance hierarchy within the military that is governed by power and control of subordinates. If a higher ranked officer exerts his dominance over a subordinate male or female officer, he can use his status to escape the culpability by the military society to justify his actions.

    Another issue in the culture of the US and the military is violence. Violence is tolerated by the public and rationalized as a means to an end. Whether it is killing enemies in the line of battle or spanking a child, the US culture of condoning acts of violence is passed from generation to generation. Societal views like this enable a culture where rape is dismissed and covered. We also see evidence of this in cases of child sexual assault. Blame is oftentimes placed on child victims of sexual assault who do not protest enough or who are seen as inappropriate outlets for sexual relation, i.e. homosexual assault cases. Although rape is the focus of this blog post, acts of violence can be seen in other manifestations than rape. Women in the US are more likely to be murdered by an intimate partner than women in 25 of the other high income nations worldwide. The female homicide rate in America is the highest of its first world counterparts. This figure is shocking, but the viewpoints of male college students in the US paints a picture as to why these numbers of homicides are so high. A survey from the 1980s asked men if they would hit their wives under certain circumstances; a majority of men indicated that they would hit or slap their wife if she deserved it. These men are not only saying that they believe violence is justifiable, but that physically harming someone as a form of control is a normal way of life.

    One last issue I would like to discuss from the video is the discussion of pornography in relation to the rapes. One of the four norms in America is media violence and pornography. I find it interesting that these two seemingly unique entities are grouped together. Pornography and violence have a connection that battered women have spoken out about. These women reveal that their spouse was more violent and cruel when he used pornography while abusing them. The violence depicted in the media and the power exerted over individuals through rape both illustrate a struggle for control through violence. Until American culture addresses the flaws and unacceptable nature of these integrated norms, it will be a struggle to prevent rapes and abuse. All statistics and Information from Family Violence in the United States Defining, Understanding, and Combating Abuse.

  6. Stephanie says:

    I was shocked to read that 26,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012. According to a 2010 study conducted on child maltreatment, nearly 64,000 children experienced child sexual assault nationwide. In addition to finding both of these numbers shocking, I found connections between military sexual assault and child sexual maltreatment. Chapter 3 of Family Violence in the United States introduces child sexual maltreatment by explaining noncontact acts, such as exposure to pornography, and contact acts of sexual abuse. Victims of military sexual assault also described accounts of noncontact acts, including exposure to rape jokes, pornography, and sexism, as well as contact acts.

    At the macrosystem level of the ecological model, low socioeconomic status is a predictor of child sexual maltreatment, which I think relates to hierarchal status as a predictor of sexual assault in the military. Perpetrators of military sexual assault are part of a toxic environment that fosters dominance, explained above, and might feel the need to exert power, doing so through sexual assault.

    In both the cases of child sexual maltreatment and military sexual assault, victims do not often report abuse. Child abusers prevent children from reporting the abuse through force, threats, and fear. One of the victims in the video above stated that he was raped by a superior non-commissioned officer, and ordered by his command not to report the crime. Chapter 3 states that relationship closeness is a moderating factor in the likelihood that a victim will report sexual abuse. With child sexual maltreatment, the closer the relationship between the child and the perpetrator, the less likely the child will be to report the abuse, especially if the child lives in the same household as the perpetrator. Victims of military sexual assault might be less likely to report abuse in fear of disrupting close relationships, even if not familial, and feeling like they caused a collapse in the military structure.

    Along with disclosure come embarrassment, shame, and not being believed. Of children who did disclose, less than 10 percent of the cases were reported to authorities. A service member in the video above thought she and other officers who had reported abuse that week were joking. Additionally, testifying can be traumatizing, as victims are “subjected to multiple and embarrassing interviews about the event.”

    The chapter goes into detail about CSA education programs, which teach children about identifying appropriate and inappropriate touches, and provides them with a safe space outside of the home to report abuse. I think prevention programs are vital for service members, and believe that a having a male and female independent prosecutor would provide a safe space for victims of military sexual assault to report abuse, and be believed.

  7. Sarah N says:

    Sexual assault is a major issue today. After reading the numbers and facts about sexual assault in the military are so shocking it reminded me of the numbers related to Child Sexual Abuse (CSA). In a study done by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2011), Child Maltreatment 2010, they found that nationwide, 63,572 children were victimized by CSA in 2010 (H&MM ch.3 pg.65).
    I assume that in the military sexual assault cases the victims probably knew their perpetrators, which is interesting to compare with the number of children victims who knew their perpetrator. According to a study done in 1994 by Finkelhor, perpetrators known to child victims were 85% to 95% of the time (H&MM ch.3 pg.65). It is a scary fact that most of the time victims of rape know their perpetrator.
    After watching the video I thought about how testifying in court can be a terrifying experience for children victims (H&MM ch.3 pg.84). Hearing how the process of reporting sexual assault in the military is so difficult is really upsetting. Something needs to be done to change the environment in the military as well as making reporting sexual abuse more of an acceptable process.

  8. Laura C says:

    This blog post raises a lot of interesting points that are also discussed in the documentary, The Invisible War, discussed in the previous post. I liked that the concepts of toxic masculinity and both the prison industrial complex and the military industrial complex were raised. Men do face more instances of sexual violence in the military in a case by case level when you look at the numbers. Toxic masculinity permeates our society in so many levels. We perpetuate ideas that men need to remain stoic and emotionless, and any man that strays from the heterosexuality that is prescribed to him from birth is vilified and ostracized. This may be a reason why men are so afraid to accept the notion that sexual attraction towards another man is something acceptable, as shown by the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. Men are also allowed to, and even encouraged to exert their power over one another and women. When a man rapes or sexually assaults another man, they are gaining power from the victim by stripping them of theirs.
    This obsession with power may be why men are less likely to report intimate partner violence (Family Violence in the United States, ch. 11, pg. 363). We are also a toxic environment where we are” the most heavily armed society in the world [and] a society where violence is glorified,” (Family Violence in the United States, ch. 11, pg. 377). This ties in with the military industrial complex, which also further perpetuates this violent and toxically masculine discourse.

  9. Reina Chehayeb says:

    The idea of toxic masculinity is very interesting considering how it applies to cases both within the military system and those outside of it. According to Family Violence in the United States, labeling intimate partner violence (IPV) against males a crime is considered to be emasculating, which makes the persecution of these cases more complicated (chapter 6, pg. 175). It’s sad to think that such a simple stigma could affect whether or not a victim receives proper support and justice from the legal systems.

    Additionally, those in the military who are victimized by other men may hesitate to report their case and disclose information due to a fear of further stigmatization of the LGBTQ community (chapter 8, pg. 261). Their perpetrator may convince them not to report the case for this reason, in addition to avoiding shaming the community (chapter 8, pg. 269). Even if they do report a case, victims are often unaware of the resources and social support that are available to them, since they believe that they are only geared towards female victims (chapter 6, pg. 207).Unfortunately, many of the risk factors that exist for male and LGBTQ IPV also exist in the military. For example, in male IPV, a major risk factor in the microsystem is a younger age and being in stressful situations (chapter 6, pg. 183)—both of which may be common in deployed units. Age is also a risk factor in LGBTQ cases of IPV (chapter 8, pg. 275), with younger people being at higher risk. Additionally, on an individual or developmental level, a general approval of violence and defensive and aggressive personality traits act as risk factors (chapter 6, pg. 184), which may also be common in the military.

    The consequences of these types of IPV also align with those that people who serve in the military may face. In male IPV, common psychological consequences include distress, severe depression, and higher levels of PTSD (chapter 6, pg. 190), all of which are common in veterans. In LGBTQ cases of IPV, the consequences are similar, with occurrences of trauma-related anxiety increasing in victims. What may make these consequences even more debilitating for these victims is the higher risk of contracting HIV and other STDs (chapter 8, pg. 266).

  10. Jyothi Nair says:

    I believe that several parallels can be drawn between this blog post and maltreatment in LGBTQI relationships with the idea of “toxic masculinity” being a key factor. The term is defined as “the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia, and…violence.” It is essentially the male stereotype intensified and is prevalent in the military atmosphere and can be applied to gay relationships. About 32.4% of men in same-sex relationships reported IPV in a current or past relationship with about 19.2% of them reporting physical violence and 18.5% reporting unwanted sexual activity (H&MM, 265). Being hypermasculine involves a need for power and dominance over another which could play a role in these relationships. The LGBTQI community a tight knit one and most individuals rely heavily on the support of one another. To avoid shaming the community and further stigmatization many members are reluctant to disclose any information about relationship violence (H&MM, 261). This is similar to a situation of maltreatment in the military; toxic masculinity can create a hostile environment that does not allow victims to speak out and accuse their perpetrators. The consequences of maltreatment in the military and in LGBTQI relationships are similar. Victims can experience anxiety, depression, and/or PTSD but in LGBTQI there is the added risk of contracting HIV or an STD (p. 283).

  11. Stephanie Moses says:

    Of the 26,000 service members who reported unwanted sexual contact in 2013, 53% of those attacks were directed at men, by other men. Toxic environments such as prison or the military encourage hypermasculinity, and men seek domination and power, which is expressed through violence and aggression. Men are subjected to cultural pressures to not show weakness, not show emotions other than anger, not depend on anyone, and to suffer pain in silence. I would like to discuss the maltreatment of males in terms of military sexual assault and intimate partner violence (IPV).

    Crime surveys likely provide underestimates of IPV for both men and women. However, men are less likely to report assaults than women because they are supposed to be the dominant and aggressive partner. Men are hesitant to report nondomestic assaults by other men because it can be emasculating. In a 2010 survey, 4.8 percent of men reported being forced to penetrate someone or something, 6 percent reported being forced into sex through non-physical means, 11.7 percent reported unwanted sexual contact, and 12.8 percent reported non-contact unwanted sexual experiences. It is clear that sexual assault of men is not limited to toxic environments that exacerbate hypermasculinity, but can happen anywhere. In fact, 93.3 percent of the perpetrators were men.

    While there is limited research on sexual maltreatment of male partners, research on physical maltreatment shows that at the individual/developmental level, women who perpetrate IPV tend to approve of violence, have feelings of powerlessness, and possess personality traits of aggression. I believe these predictors are relevant to military sexual assault in that approval of violence, power, and aggression are all enhanced in the military. Physical and sexual maltreatment of men has dire psychological effects, including anger, emotional hurt, shame, and fear – which might prevent a victim from reporting – and PTSD is a major concern in maltreatment of males.

    Unfortunately, services for male victims of abuse are limited. Men might not seek help in fear of being ridiculed, but for those who do, it is not necessarily available. The feminist theory states that men cannot be victimized in a male-dominated society. As a result, domestic violence agencies built on this idea are not likely to offer services to males. Law enforcement is not strict when it comes to male victims of abuse. In the video posted in the blog post, former PO3 Brian Lewis says, “I was raped by a superior noncommissioned officer. I was ordered by my command not to report this crime.” It is clear that maltreatment of males is not a small issue. It needs to be taken seriously so that we can work towards putting an end to assault that occurs as a result of toxic environments, and so that victims can get the help they need.

  12. Amanda D. says:

    The idea of toxic masculinity and toxic environments does sound valid to me. I think that, bottom line, environments where masculinity and strength are so prized can result in violence to maintain an individual’s control.
    Reading both this post and the linked GQ article about men who have been sexually assaulted was extremely disheartening, and not just because of the violence itself: unfortunately, the attitudes toward male victims are woefully primitive and, it would seem, rarely are helpful for these survivors. This struck me as very similar to attitudes towards male victims of domestic violence, as they tend to not be believed due to their gender. Indeed, much like the stories related in the GQ article, “the issue of male [domestic violence] victims has been – and continues to be – one of the most controversial issues in the literature on family violence, [with some researchers arguing] that violence by women toward men is [only] in self-defense or retaliation. While the chapter on maltreatment of male partners in Family Violence in the United States: Defining, Understanding, and Combating Abuse focuses on female to male violence and military sexual assault seems to be almost exclusively male to male, the underlying societal sentiment is the same: men cannot be victims.
    When it comes to the (absurd) idea that men cannot be victims of sexual or physical violence, one need only look at statistics. Indeed, 27% of all injuries resulting from female perpetrated intimate partner violence against men required medical attention, with 38% of all victims losing time from work and 31% of all victims fearing bodily harm. Meanwhile, this post points out that 53% of the 26,000 service members who were sexually assaulted as of 2013 were men. The GQ article describes these violent acts in more detail, often with accounts of men being violently raped with broom handles and toilet brushes. To say that these men were injured and victims of violence is an understatement. It should also be noted that men are as likely or perhaps more likely than women to be assaulted with a weapon, perhaps to mediate the size difference, in cases of domestic violence. Similarly, several men in the GQ article reported being beaten with objects or threatened with knives if they weren’t compliant.
    It has been shown in instances of domestic violence that female perpetrators tend to have a history of aggressive behavior perpetration, which definitely made me wonder about perpetrators of sexual violence in the military. I have a feeling that if a study were to be done on these sexual predators, aggressive and violent behavior before entering the military would be found. After all, while sexual violence in the military is a rampant problem, it is not something that happens to most men: this suggests that it is not only a toxic environment in the military that can encourage sexual violence.
    This post points out that “culprits almost always go free, survivors rarely speak, and no one in the military or Congress has done enough to stop it.” With such deafening silence, it should come as no surprise that many of the men interviewed in the GQ article report issues with substance abuse, troubled intimate relationships, fear for their lives, and PTSD. Male domestic violence victims, too, have reported experiencing fear for their lives because of their violent partners, PTSD, and overall deteriorated psychological health.
    One problem the GQ further elaborated on was how difficult it is for male victims of military sexual violence to get help, with one man describing how questionnaires are specifically geared towards women. Male victims of domestic violence often face multiple barriers in getting help, as well; “in contrast to the well-organized efforts for female victims of IPV, there is no multi-billion dollar Violence Against Men Act, no battered men’s defense, and no legislation that empowers male victims of IPV.” Furthermore, legal justice is even more difficult to obtain: thanks to The Invisible War and more recent news articles on the subject, it is well known that perpetrators of sexual violence in the military are very rarely prosecuted and punished. Similarly, “studies of male victims in the criminal justice system typically show that male victims are not helped by this system [with only] 18.7% [of male victims who called the police finding] the police very helpful.”
    In today’s society, male victims of domestic violence are the least likely to be offered group mental health and non-residential support group services, transportation services, and employment services. Men in the military, as recounted in the GQ article, are often punished for going AWOL in an attempt to escape sexual abuse and should they receive an other than honorable discharge for it, often have difficulty finding work once they’re out of the military. Clearly, quite a bit more needs to be done if this violence is going to be stopped and if male survivors are ever going to get the help they need and deserve.

  13. Eve Rosenfeld says:

    I think what is really at play here is a need to dominate and control. This undoubtedly is an exemplification of toxic masculinity. The majority of these cases involve the rape of a subordinate by a superior officer. This demonstrates to me that this is not about sex, but instead about power. From the video in this post and the content of the post itself, I gather that military men who are victims of sexual assault are rarely able to report the crime. The sexual victimization of men is still somewhat of a taboo topic. A recent survey of men was even reluctant to call being “made to penetrate someone’s vagina, anus, or mouth with their penis” rape and instead created a separate category for this victimization. 4.8% of men surveyed indicated they had experienced this type of abuse. Of these men 44.8% of the perpetrators were current or former partners and 79.2% of men victimized in this way had only female perpetrators. I think, while there is a culture of toxic masculinity, this viewpoint may make it for these victims to come forward or come to terms with what was, in my opinion, rape. This culture of toxic masculinity may actually be a part of the problem regarding the ability for men to report their abuse, whether their abusers were male or female. There likely is a lot of shame associate with reporting abuse in either case. In fact, male victims of physical IPV suffer psychological injuries including PTSD, anger, emotional hurt, shame, and fear. They have also been shown to suffer from more physical health problems and are at an increased risk for sexual dysfunction. Men who have been psychologically abused by their female partners have also demonstrated higher rates of PTSD, stress, depression, and alcohol abuse.

    It is clear that men who are victims of rape and sexual assault in the military do not receive the justice they deserve for their suffering. This blog post and the accompanying video make it clear that the abusers in these cases usually get away with their abuse. Unfortunately the law is particularly lax for male victims of IPV as well, even when the men are injured. In fact, 56% of male victims of IPV found that the police were not at all helpful. Additionally it is extremely difficult for male victims to receive appropriate victim services. A major issue in men receiving services is that they may not realize these services are available to them. In the case of military sexual abuse against male victims, I think they also may be unlikely to be aware of services available to them. This culture of toxic masculinity not only promotes abuse by male perpetrators, but also minimizes the struggles of male victims of military sexual abuse and IPV.

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